EDITORIAL: Pay to play with AGs

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Pay-to-play politics are penetrating state attorney general’s offices, with aggressive plaintiffs’ lawyers on the make for state-sponsored jackpots. To combat these dubious practices, the American Tort Reform Association developed a set of principles that should govern outside contracting by state AGs. A new ATRA report card alerts that most AGs aren’t meeting those ethical standards.

The proposed guidelines amount to basic, common-sensical standards of good government. The recommendations include posting on the Internet every contract with state-hired outside counsel; ensuring attorneys general make “every effort” to find the best-value contractors; and instituting third-party government review of contingent, fee-based contracts. To reinforce the idea that attorneys general are supposed to be serving taxpayer interests, not lawyers’ greed, ATRA suggests that AGs deposit all state lawsuit proceeds over $250,000 into state treasuries.

It’s disturbing that most states don’t have laws that cover at least some of these simple requirements already. Either way, the public can be forgiven for expecting that AGs might be guided by personal integrity to abide by these standards anyway - but most aren’t. The ATRA report gives the states a cumulative, median grade of D-plus, and with good reason.

Examples of questionable activity abound. For instance, in her 2002 re-election campaign, then-New Mexico Attorney General Patricia Madrid got more than $230,000 of her $840,000-plus in campaign money from plaintiffs’ lawyers. The Albuquerque-based law firm Eaves, Bardacke, Baugh, Kierst & Kiernan - whose attorneys donated $22,000 to Ms. Madrid’s campaigns - was awarded an interstate water litigation contract worth up to $500,000.

In his 1998 and 2002 campaigns, former California Attorney General Bill Lockyer received from plaintiffs’ attorneys nearly $1.9 million in campaign donations, which was more than 7 percent of the total funds he raised. In 2003, Mr. Lockyer announced a settlement of more than $1.6 billion in a case he brought against natural gas company El Paso Corp., supposedly for its inflation of natural-gas prices during California’s 2000-2001 energy crisis. The payout to outside counsel was as high as $60 million. That buys a lot of pinstriped suits.

In October, the Alabama Supreme Court dealt a long-overdue blow to Attorney General Troy King when it threw out jury decisions awarding the state hundreds of millions of dollars from more than 70 pharmaceutical firms in a price-gouging suit. In 2006, an outside hire on the case, trial lawyer Jere Beasley, and his wife donated a total of $50,000 in one day to four separate political action committees all officially chaired by Montgomery lobbyist Johnny Crawford. The same day, a fifth Crawford PAC donated $50,000 to Mr. King’s campaign. Mr. Beasley stood to make a sizable chunk from the settlement in the drug company suit.

These deals technically may be within the boundaries of the law, but they give the appearance of impropriety. Voters elect state attorneys general, not private lawyers looking to get rich. The people’s interests aren’t being served when taxpayers can’t tell if their elected officials are working for them or special interests.

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